Cindy in a tide pool in Mal País, Costa Rica

For Our Anniversary, We Almost Died Together

It was the fourth anniversary of our relationship. We were playing in the waves in Costa Rica when I saw that Cindy, five or six feet from me, was looking concerned. I remembered reading that drowning people don’t look like you would expect drowning people to look; they don’t wave their arms, and they don’t scream. I quickly swam to her and determined that she was, in fact, not doing okay. The waves kept breaking on her, and she had swallowed water. She couldn’t touch the bottom, and the undertow kept sucking her out.

Earlier, we noticed the strong current pulling us out, but thought it was fun, “Wow! Can you feel how strongly it’s pulling us out” I said. But now we were truly struggling to get back to the shore, and we kept being pulled further out. Perhaps we had gotten stuck in a rip current, but at the time I didn’t realize what was happening. Cindy was beginning to panic and I was worried that she might drown.

I remember thinking that she might die, and that I might survive. How could I live with myself if I didn’t manage to save her? I felt a surge of energy and determination rise in me. I was going to save her.

With my surfboard, at Drift Bar in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

I started trying to maneuver her towards the shore, while keeping her head above the surf. At one point, after a wave crashed over us, I could feel her limbs brushing against mine as she was struggling somewhere beneath me. While holding my breath, I located her by touch and dragged her up to the surface as fast as I could.

I repeatedly struggled to boost her up, while I was sinking myself, and also while trying to swim hard to move us closer to the shore. I realized I was quickly using up my energy and that I was also getting out of breath. Because of the waves so frequently burying my face, I was struggling to consume enough air. I was concerned that I would not be able to stay calm. I was worried that I would start to panic. We kept being hit by large waves, and neither of us could touch the bottom.

This is when I began to realize that I might die trying to save Cindy, or that we might both die together. I realized that we were in a life-or-death situation, and that it was truly my responsibility to save us both.

I decided to use the waves to push Cindy to shore. When my head was above the water, I yelled as loudly as I could, “Let the waves push you in!” Every time a wave came, I waited until I was inside the crest of it, and Cindy was on the face of it with her back to me. At just the right moment, I shoved her as hard as I could, as if she was on a surfboard and I was trying to launch her down the face of the wave.

After doing this a few times, Cindy was able to touch the bottom. At that point, she had some ability to resist the undertow using the strength of her legs. I swam to her quickly, and grabbed her and pulled her up the beach, out of the surf.

In hindsight, of course, we should have swum sideways, parallel to the shore. That would have enabled us to escape from the rip current and then easily swim, or be washed, back to shore. Perhaps I didn’t save us at all. Perhaps the current changed, or we were washed sideways out of the rip current as we struggled.


The rip current warning sign at Banana Beach

The next morning, I went surfing on my own at 5:30 am, leaving Cindy to sleep. Then in the evening, when we returned to the beach, we finally noticed the large signs warning about rip currents. We went into the water together, this time with the the safety of the large, buoyant surfboard, which I had leashed to Cindy’s ankle.

I gave her surfing lessons, teaching her the basics of paddling on the board, getting it safely through the breaking waves, and then riding the whitewater back to shore on her belly. Afterwards, we lit a fire in the stone the ring we had constructed a few days earlier, and Cindy lounged in our parachute-fabric hammock while I paddled out to the green waves, to practice as the sun set.

The following day, in the evening, we arrived at the beach late, and decided that we would skip the surfing lesson so that I could go surfing alone before it got dark. When I returned, Cindy wanted to go into the ocean, but I wanted to snooze in the hammock. We agreed that she could go in alone, but only if she stayed close to the other swimmers, and stayed where her feet could easily touch the bottom. I also reminded her of what to do if she got caught in a rip current: stay calm, don’t panic, and swim parallel to the shore. “Ask for help if you need it,” I called out, as she started to walk down the beach to the ocean.

As I lay in the hammock, surveying the ocean, I realized that the dark shapes of people in the distance were so blurry in my uncorrected vision that I was unable to determine which one was Cindy. I found myself worrying that she had gone too far out. “Is that blob further out than the others her?” I wondered.

I noticed how I kept worrying, but that I was able to soothe and reassure myself. She knew what to do and she was being safe, I reasoned. I realized that this must be similar to the struggle of a parent: allowing a child to venture into the world that has real risks, but trusting the child’s own ability and agency enough to allow them to grow. We can stifle and disable people with what we call love. As I contemplated how I could lose Cindy for real this time, having allowed her to return to the ocean that nearly killed her two days before, I drifted off to sleep.

When I awoke, Cindy was standing next to the hammock, dripping with saltwater, a smile lighting up her face.

“How was it?” I asked.

“It was amazing!” She said, “I remembered that I am the moon, and that I am just as powerful as the ocean. I have the power to move her; my power is expressed by her tides. She is also very powerful, and I realized that when I trust her and treat her with respect, she will take care of me. I said out-loud to her, ‘I know how powerful you are and I am here to enjoy you and be with you, and I am surrendered to you.’”

I almost cried with gratitude, gratitude for Cindy’s healing process—the recovery and realization of her full power—and also gratitude for my hard-won ability to contain my own anxiety.